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Episode 19: Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, from the early 12th century AD

So remember when we were first talking about museums, way back in the very first episode?  We talked about them as deliberate, curated spaces.  That’s not news – there’s a reason the museum’s chief storytellers are called curators.  But it’s true.  They actively create the space you’re experiencing, every square inch of it.  And beyond their expertise with the content, curators have to have an incredible amount of empathy with the visitor, to make sure that the space they curate around the objects they’re displaying resonate with the visitor as deeply as possible.  And, considering how fast people move from gallery to gallery, as quickly as possible.  They don’t have a lot of time with you, on an object by object basis, so they’ve got to make it count.

Most people who move through a museum are unaware of this, or at least, they’re subconsciously aware of the resonance, the consequences of the manipulation, but not the manipulation itself.  And that’s how it’s supposed to be.  For example, it’s only after you’ve walked into the gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, allow your eyes to adjust to the low lighting and the warm, rich chocolate brown walls, and take a seat in front of this sculpture of Guanyin, the 12th century Song dynasty Bodhisattva of Compassion, that you realize that just maybe, there’s been some …handling going on.  Rooms don’t feel this calm on their own.  And even though there’s no actual sound proofing, everything gets quiet.  People just know that it’s not a space for chatter.  But it’s also not intimidating, the way that most museum quiet can be.  It’s just relaxed.  And it helps that when you look straight ahead, you’re being gently received by the warmest, most loving face that’s ever been carved out of empress tree wood, almost a thousand years ago.  So okay, you say, probably without even realizing it.  You’ve got me.  Tell me a story.

Fortunately, storytelling is religious art’s specialty, and Buddhist art is no exception.  Buddhism evolved in India, based on the teachings and spiritual practices of the Buddha between 6th and 4th centuries BCE that were delivered largely through storytelling.  When Buddhism arrived in China from India in the third century BC, it brought with it the cast of characters that play critical, allegorical roles in these stories.  A bodhisattva is one of these figures: it is one who has, like the Buddha, achieved humanity’s winning touchdown of Enlightenment, but, unlike the Buddha, stayed back on Earth, among us and all of our imperfections.  The bodhisattva is a personification of empathy and compassion: the one who passed up eternal glory to stay back among the brutes and help us.  And for this sculpture in particular, compassion is the order of the day.  There are four great bodhisattvas in Chinese Buddhism, and the one we have here is commonly called Guanyin.  The name is a shortened form of Guan-shi-yin, which translates as “one who hears the cries of the world.”  Just in looking at this face, and the complete relaxed openness of the pose, you feel yourself relaxing.  It’s not so unlike Van Gogh’s postman.  The object, in the context of the gallery, is telling the story, yet you just feel like you’re being listened to.

This super chill tone is clearly being projected by the figure itself.  I mean, just look at it.  The seated bodhisattvas all share an especially languid pose – and especially during the Song period – that give a sense of heaviness and release, like that delicious moment when you unsuck your stomach, or my cat fwumps down on me for a nap.  This pose, described by art historians as a pose of “royal ease,” is only one iconographic way of identifying a bodhisattva, and Guanyin in particular.  There are several ways to recognize the iconography of a bodhisattva, all of which push the narrative of its story.  One is that they’re usually decked out.  Like we see here, the figure will be covered in jewelry and finely-decorated drapery, a seated Amitaba Buddha of eternal love in its crown, and that the figure accrues jewelry as a ceremonial ritual throughout generations of worship. 

When you stand here and look closely at the decoration in the skirt, you can make out a slim, elegant cut gold leaf decoration, which was achieved by hammering fine gold leaf, heating it, cutting it into narrow strips, and applying it to the surface – and unequivocally fussy and exacting technique.  This kind of opulent meticulousness isn’t usually associated with Buddhist iconography, considering the value that an ascetic like the Buddha placed on impermanence.  Whenever you see a depiction of the Buddha, he’s spare and plain, rejecting material wealth.  But since bodhisattvas stayed back on earth, they’re still playing by earth’s rules, and material wealth is the name of the game.  So the richer a bodhisattva appears to be, the more powerful its compassion.

Another iconographic element, and one particular to Guanyin, is that the eyes are looking downward, modestly, almost coquettishly.  A more generalized interpretation for this is that Guanyin is looking down on all of us from this higher plane, poised to hear our cries.  More specifically, though, this sculpture has been identified as a Moon Water Guanyin, meaning that the downward stare is focused on looking at the reflection of the moon in a pool of water.  We’re catching this figure in a moment of gentle, intense impermanence.  I mean, what could be more relaxed, and more fleeting, than watching the moon’s reflection in a pool?  And this is a common theme in Buddhist art: something so subtle, like slightly downcast eyes, is representative of one of the core tenets of the religion writ large—namely the ability to process the concept of impermanence.

You may have noticed by now—and believe me, I’m working like hell at it—that I’ve been avoiding the use of pronouns.  I’m sure you’ve been wondering: Is the Guanyin male or female?  Well, it’s both, and it’s neither: you can imagine that a figure who transcends humanity would transcend gender, and assume any form to relieve the suffering at hand, and it’s considered best practice, at least by art historians today, to try to avoid making the call one way or another.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  In the iconographic evolution in India, you’ll see the Guanyin described and illustrated as male pretty consistently.  But that’s what makes the Song Dynasty in China, and this sculpture in particular, so interesting.  Because, as you look at it, you see the confluence of both male and female: the relaxed curve of the belly, the flat chest beneath the necklaces, the elegant pose of the fingers, yet topped by a distinctly heart-shaped, feminine face.  Try as they might to sidestep it, the literature, in the museum, and around this figure, describes this Guanyin as female.  Why?  Why now, and why in this period?

Let’s talk a little bit about the Song Dynasty.  To put it in relative perspective, this dynasty was flourishing from the period that the West was coming out of the Dark Ages and just embarking on Romanesque cathedrals.  The level of realism and sophistication that was seen in Chinese art wouldn’t even be attempted in the West for another 300 years, at the onset of the Italian Renaissance.  But the aesthetic principles of the Renaissance and of the Song Dynasty weren’t that different: both valued humanism, both felt that there was a sense of the divine in sensitive renderings of nature and the human body.  And the Song came by this humanism honestly.  It was preceded by the Tang dynasty, which was considered the Golden Age of Chinese art, and which was, like its military, characterized as confident, aggressive, and expansive. 

This was the period of the Silk Road, of diversity and vibrancy in their artwork, which was heavily influenced from neighboring countries and regions like Persia, India, and the Middle East.  There was an incredible sense of outwardness, expansion, and innovation during this time – they were inventing everything from porcelain to air conditioning.  But what goes up must come down, and the Tang was eventually brought to its knees by rebellions that broke the country apart.  For fifty years, the country was divided into north and south, into multiple dynasties and ten kingdom states, until the emergence and reunification of the Song Dynasty in 960 CE. 

You can imagine what Song must have been like relative to Tang.  Everything outward and confident was turned inward.  It was a quieter, gentler, more introspective period in Chinese history, with a weakened military and a tentative new unity.  And the art reflected this, this quieter disposition, and an increase in wealth lead to a flourishing of the arts.  Like in the Italian Renaissance, there was an increase in patronage, and artists were able to heighten the sophistication of their portraiture, landscape drawing, and sculpture.  And this sophistication was characterized as realism.  Larger abstract ideas like divinity and spirituality were rendered as beauty, as naturalism, as close to an idealized realism as possible.  So it makes sense that this imagined idea of compassion would materialize as a maternal, female figure.  From Song onwards, Guanyin is most often represented as female, as the divine personification of maternal love, universally comforting no matter what sect of Buddhism you practiced, no matter if you were even religious or not.  It’s not much of a stretch from Guanyin to the Virgin Mary, at least in terms of popularity and that universal sense of benevolent security and belovedness.  

But it’s interesting to think about the Guanyin’s gender fluidity as an example of the constant, continual aesthetic fluidity and evolution of this sculpture throughout the ages.  Until now, really, where it sits in a glass box in a museum – beautifully curated, no question, but suspended, arrested.  This sculpture was a ritual object in a Northern Chinese temple for over 700 years.  We have a tendency to forget that objects in museums are really, really old.  Part of the ritual was accumulation, adding more jewelry and layers of paint as ceremonial rituals and even tastes and trends in Buddhism evolved during that time.  And when the sculpture was acquired by the museum in 1920, it kept right on changing, even in a time period that we can wrap our heads around.  That’s also something that can happen in a museum – if curators determine that the object is in a current state that’s inauthentic to its period of creation, they can take it upon themselves to fix it.  And this is what happened with this Guanyin. 

When it arrived, it was completely white, covered in white paint from top to bottom, the result of more recent Buddhist devotional act.  But in 1956, WGBH in Boston came to the museum to do a documentary on the museum, including Guanyin.  Enormous bright lights were set up in the gallery, and curators noticed traces of color beneath.  They embarked on an extensive process of restoration to remove multiple layers of white paint and expose the gorgeous polychromatic colors we see now.  All thanks to the magic of television, Guanyin was returned to its full Technicolor glory.  It was then on permanent exhibition until the late 90s, beloved by its visitors though without proper upkeep, and after some paint started flaking and some wood started cracking, it was taken into storage, until a generous patron paid to have it fully restored yet again, and only 18 months ago it was reinstalled into a gallery created for its return, complete, relaxed, static, under glass.

And this is where we began.  Walking into this gallery, we’re meant to feel Guanyin’s calm compassion even before we see its royal ease, or feel the love emanating from its face.  And while we happily consent to the Zen of the room, and welcome the golden, colorful sculpture back home, it’s important to remember that there’s a very specific story being told to us about Guanyin’s origin point.  Restoration, or determining an object’s most authentic point to restore it to, is, as you can imagine, a powerful, problematic thing.  Because someone is always making a choice.  Who is to say that Guanyin was most at home when it was carved, and not any time in the 700 years of ritual since?  Who is to say that the white paint wasn’t meant to be its final stop?  A newspaper clipping from the Boston Herald in 1956 states that Guanyin was “restored to its original coloring for display to television audiences”, which is hardly an art historical arbiter.  Furthermore, there is evidence of additional colors of paint beneath the current surface, meaning that what we see isn’t even how it was originally intended to be seen.  There’s more, but they just stopped.

It’s a sticky wicket, restoration.  It’s a different kind of storytelling.  And, at least now, it’s the only kind that will ever reach a conclusion.  Guanyin lives in a glass box, untouched, removed from its ritual home, and stripped of its layers of history.  But it’s also soulful, inviting, and presented as a jewel in the crown of the museum’s narrative of Song Dynasty aesthetics, not telling, but showing.  Feeling.  Maybe there’s no starting point for compassion.  And maybe that’s the part of the story that really counts.

CREDITS:

Special thanks to Ben Avishai, Debbie Blicher, Kip Clark, and the intrepid museum goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go to the Lonely Palette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter, @Lonelypalette, or on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. 

And as promised, The Lonely Palette is live on Patreon!  This is your opportunity to support this podcast you love so dear, and get some great swag in return like coffee mugs, tote bags, and even a postcard from every new museum I visit.  Today’s Patron of the Day is kind of my first patron ever, in life, and in my love of the arts: my fantastic mom Susan Avishai, thank you so much. 

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